Monthly Archives: September 2015

South Africa riding high

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South Africa riding high

I spent yesterday afternoon tasting my way through a frankly impressive line-up of wines at the New Wave South Africa tasting, organised by a group of UK importers. The tasting aimed to convey some of the vibrancy and excitement that has been building in the country for some time now. It brought memories of my trip down there earlier this year. South Africa has only really been on my map for the recent few years; I have to admit that the ‘classic’ South African style of wines had never really appealed to me and to some extend I still don’t much care for Stellies Bordeaux blends or banana-chocolate Pinotage.

This new wave of producers, mostly from the cool (temperature-wise very hot in fact!) Swartland region, is really reinvigorating the industry with their take on what is fast becoming the ‘new’ South African style: think texture, acidity, whole bunch, lower alcohols, old vines and atypical varieties. Drinkable wines as well as wines that challenge.

There are so many ‘young guns’ doing interesting things, it’s impossible to talk about them all. Aside from the great wines they’re producing, it is their camaraderie and unpretentious demeanours that really draw you in and make you want to be part of the revolution.

I think overall the white wines have the most potential as they are wonderfully textured and full of life whilst the two red varieties showing the best potential are undoubtedly Syrah and Cinsault.

Here’s my pick of the bunch:

Craven, Stellenbosch

Aussie dude Mick and South African belle Jeanine are causing a bit of a stir different in good old Stellenbosch. Their skin contact Clairette Blanche is honeyed and fragrant, the 10.7% Pinot Noir is fresh and vibrant but their best wine is a vivid, peppery Syrah from the Faure vineyard, oh so drinkable and red fruited.

Kershaw, Elgin

Chardonnay and Syrah made by English Master of Wine Richard Kershaw in cool Elgin. The Chardonnay is in a different league and I’m confident in saying it is one of the best currently made in South Africa.

Eben Sadie, Swartland

Eben needs no introduction. The man who put the Swartland on the map is not sleeping on his laurels though. His wines are constantly improving, the 2013 Palladius is quite possibly his best to date. I can’t wait to taste his Mencia at some point in the future and see how the Assyrtiko, Fiano and Greco he’s planted turn out!

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Porseleinberg, Swartland

Callie Louw makes just one wine from the schist soils of the Porseleinberg, a 100% whole bunch Syrah. In 2013 it’s fermented in a mix of concrete egg and foudre and is all structure, finely balanced sandy tannins, fresh acidity and concentrated black fruit scented with wild herbs.

Mullineux, Swartland

The single terroir wines are truly special, the 2013 Schist Syrah was, for me, the best wine at yesterday’s tasting. Such varietal purity and structure is not often seen outside of the Northern Rhone. Real class. Very hard to get, alas.

Crystallum, Hemel-en-Aarde

Sublime classy Chardonnays, ‘The Agnes’ draws comparison with the modern Aussie styles, showing a subtle struck match and grapefruit pith character. The ‘Clay Shales’ is supercharged with terroir and soil expression. The ‘Peter Max’ Pinot Noir shows soft, elegant hedgerow fruit and lovely balance, too.

Alheit Vineyards, Western Cape

Alheit’s white blend, Cartology, is considered one of the finest whites currently made in South Africa and it’s easy to see why. This wine is all about finesse and texture. It has richness and spice but also balance and floral elements.


And i am also very much looking forward to seeing Ryan Mostert’s Silwervis wines in the UK! Only tried the whites so far but have been very impressed. The NV Smiley is already on pour in Kensington Wine Rooms.


Chardonnay – the winemakers grape

Is a wine made in the winery or in the vineyard?

That wasn’t a question on one of my MW exams, but it could well have been. The argument about whether a wine is made in the vineyard or in the winery is long-lived and, in truth, there is no single answer to the question. Like every exam question an MW student has to answer it requires considering multiple differing, even polar opposite, opinions and illuminating them with real-life examples from vineyards and wineries worldwide.

This particular subject was brought into sharp focus at a tasting I attended recently where four cool-climate producers from different countries each discussed their philosophies when making Chardonnay. Winemakers or representatives from Domaine de Malandes in Chablis, Casas del Bosque in Casablanca, Chile, Philip Shaw from Orange in Australia and Jordan from Stellenbosch in South Africa all gathered in London to show two Chardonnays each.

From L-R: Philip Goodband MW, moderator, representative from Domaine des Malandes, Gary Jordan from Jordan,  Damien Shaw from Philip Shaw, Grant Phelps from Casas del Bosque

From L-R: Philip Goodband MW, moderator; representative from Domaine des Malandes; Gary Jordan from Jordan; Damien Shaw from Philip Shaw; Grant Phelps from Casas del Bosque

On the surface we had one old world producer and three new world, but all from cool-climate regions and all presenting Chardonnay – so how different could their winemaking techniques be? Quite, it turns out. Whilst there were indeed some similarities, these were eclipsed by the differences.

First up was discussion on what made these producers cool-climate. For Domaine de Malandes it was the northerly latitude of Chablis, whereas for Philip Shaw it was the altitude of vineyards at 900m above sea level. Casas del Bosque benefits from their proximity to the Southern Ocean with its cold Humboldt Current – resulting in fog and cold winds to temper the daytime temperatures. And Jordan has a combination both of altitude up to 400m and cooling influence from the Southern Ocean. All cool-climate, but all for different reasons.

Onto the winemaking. Grant Phelps, winemaker at Casa del Bosque, started his discussion by talking about his love for skin contact, with 100% of their Chardonnay undergoing skin contact for 5 days before pressing. He believes this extracts texture and flavour into the wine. In contrast, Gary Jordan doesn’t use any skin contact in his Chardonnay as he worries it could result in too high pH in the wine – meaning the wine could taste flabby and not age well. In his words “a few months on skins in the vineyard is long enough”.

Whether to use inoculated yeast or wild yeast was the next subject to be debated. Although Casas del Bosque have experimented with starting fermentation with wild yeast, they do inoculate in order to make sure the wine ferments to dryness – to avoid a so-called ‘stuck’ fermentation. In contrast, Philip Shaw use 100% wild yeast as they believe it gives more complexity and texture to the wine. And although Jordan do inoculate, Gary did point out that using wild yeast shouldn’t necessarily give a stuck ferment.

Malolactic fermentation – whether to convert the harsher, green malic acid into softer, creamier lactic acid – was another topic where opinions differed. For Domaine des Malandes 100% MLF is necessary due to the cool climate without the high sunshine hours found in the new world. Softening the high levels of malic acid is important in order to create a palatable wine. In contrast, Philip Shaw only does 20-30% MLF and Casas del Bosque don’t do any at all.

Onto the oak regime, and surprise surprise here were yet more differences in opinion. For their basic Chablis, Domaine des Malandes don’t use any oak – the wine is aged 100% in stainless steel tank. Even for their premier cru Montmains, they only use 20% oak and a mix of new, 2nd and 3rd year. Contrast this to Casas del Bosque where their Gran Reserva is aged for 11 months in 100% oak, 35% of which is new. Jordan’s Nine Yards Chardonnay sees even more new oak – it is all aged in oak for 13 months – 93% of which is new oak. In fact probably the only similarity here was that the oak was French for all the wines.

During barrel ageing winemakers can increase the texture of the wine and add rich complexity by stirring the lees (essentially the dead yeast cells leftover from fermentation) in the bottom of the barrels. Even here opinions differed. Casas del Bosque use the perhaps more traditional method of battonage – literally stirring the lees with a rod, whereas Jordan use barrel rolling so that they don’t have to remove the barrel bungs: meaning less oxygen contact with the wine.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these differing winemaking decisions resulted in completely different wines. Styles ranged from the steely, intensely mineral Chablis of Domaine des Malandes to the full bodied, fruity and smoky style of Casas del Bosque with Philip Shaw giving textural, delicate wines and Jordan ably walking the tightrope between ripe fruit and bright acidity. Each winery had its own unique signature, a result of considered winemaking decisions alongside each winery’s particular climate and terroir.

It was an enlightening tasting and I just wish I had been able to be a fly on the wall post-tasting as I’m sure the discussions and debate between the winemakers continued after the room had cleared. As with many topics in the world of wine, there is no right or wrong or black or white – winemakers simply have to make the right decision for them based on their grapes, climate, resources and a multitude of other factors. It makes for a fascinating discussion.


Becoming a Master of Wine

Last Monday was the day I had been waiting for since I handed in my research project back in June – MW results day. After a week of increasingly sleepless nights I awoke early on Monday and waited on tenterhooks for the phone call that would give me the news. Those two hours of waiting and not knowing when the phone would ring were not something I’d like to repeat in a hurry, but in the days of immediate notifications via email it was actually refreshingly special to have to wait for a call.

And then finally the phone did ring and yes, it was Penny, the director of the Institute of Masters of Wine, at the other end. I had been dreading a drawn-out X factor-style wait to hear the results but happily Penny didn’t make me wait any longer and the words “I’m ringing with good news – you passed” were soon ringing in my ears. The rest of the phone call now seems like a bit of a blur. I think there was lots of jumping around the room with an ecstatic grin on my face whilst repeating “thank you, thank you” probably far too many times. It certainly took a while before I realised that (after filling in some paperwork) I could now call myself an MW.

Suddenly the last four years of study, practice tastings, collecting examples, essay writing and research were over. The staying in at weekends to work, not seeing friends and the late-night study sessions were done. Life could return to normal, or whatever normal is when you’re an MW…after some celebrating anyway.

MW results day is always a happy day in the wine trade and twitter is the best place to see the good news roll in – both from students who have passed part of their exams and also from the newly minted MWs. This year was like no other, and I shall never forget it for the constant dinging of my phone as messages poured in – and the excitement of finding out who else had passed. By the end of the day the final number was announced: 19 new MWs – taking the total to 340. A tiny number really – and significantly less than the 536 people who have ever been into space. Yes, we MWs (yes, I can say that now!) are a rarer breed than astronauts.

The past week has flown by in a flurry of congratulatory emails, messages and tweets combined with cracking open some fantastic bottles of wine and generally revelling in it all. I have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have got in touch to wish me well, as I’m sure have my fellow new MWs.

It is fair to say I don’t think I have stopped smiling since I received the phone call – it has been a good week. And yet, I have to admit to a small amount of sadness that I am not sharing this moment with my fellow monkeys. It perhaps was always a pie-in-the-sky idea that we all might pass together, but it would have been wonderful. Sadly life gets in the way sometimes – but equally I know it won’t be too long before an MW results day gives more happy news for the monkeys. Lenka has to make a few amendments to her research paper before resubmitting in December. And after taking a year out Alex is back in the programme and sitting the tasting paper – with the research paper surely not far behind.

So I know my passing is just the first in what will be a hat-trick of wine monkey MWs. I can’t wait.


For the full list of new MWs:

D-Day approaches

September has arrived and that means just one thing for any MW student – results day is just around the corner. For Lenka and I it is a bigger date than any previously. Next Monday, September 7, we will each get a phone call to let us know whether we have passed the final stage of the course and so if we are able to put those two little letters after our names. MW. So, not just any Monday then.

It is now over two months since we both handed our research papers in – something that no small amount of blood, sweat and tears had gone into. In my case, over 9000 carefully written and re-written words interspersed with any number of tables and graphs was finally deemed ready for submission and with a deep breath ‘send’ was pressed on the email.

The summer since then has been spent trying to forget about it as much as possible, or at least put it to the back of our minds. Being able to read fiction novels again and not have to spend weekends working was certainly a much-appreciated novelty. But now as D-Day looms ever closer I find that my thoughts are inevitably turning to next Monday, and certainly if my dreams are anything to go by then my subconscious is very much aware of what lies ahead.

Of course we have to feel hopeful – we both worked our socks off to get our research papers finished – but that hope is also tempered by no small amount of nerves and worry. Not in the least because we are true guinea pigs – our year is the first year for the new research paper, meaning it was very hard to know with any certainty exactly what the examiners wanted. So whilst we and our mentors were happy with what we submitted, who knows if that meets the markers’ criteria.

And then beyond the worry about not passing and either having to make a load more changes to our papers or (worst case scenario) having to start from scratch is another thought – what happens if we do pass and become MWs? What comes next?

Only time will tell. T minus 6 days and counting…..